Security Studies Program Seminar
Lessons from Iraq for Afghanistan and Beyond
Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) John Nagl
Senior Fellow, Center for New American Security
October 22, 2008
What is going on Afghanistan today?
- US Army drew the wrong lessons from Operation Desert Storm
- We decided we were the best at conventional conflict, but the rest of the world decided not to fight this way. Instead, they decided to pursue insurgency, terrorism, and WMDs as alternate means.
- The British in Malaysia and the US in Vietnam show that conventional armies are initially terrible at fighting insurgencies, but then adapt. The US lost in Vietnam only because it ran out of national will.
- How does the fight in Iraq compare to prior COIN campaigns?
- First, the US adopted effective COIN principles in Iraq in 2007-2008
- The lessons of Iraq have important implications for the ongoing COIN campaign in Afghanistan
- These lessons must be institutionalized to prevent repetition of the mistakes made in Iraq 2003-2006 in the future.
- Organizations need to learn. The most innovative organizations have the following characteristics:
- Bottom-up input is accepted
- Superiors are available and questioned
- Theoretical thinking about core missions of the organization and its strategic environment occurs on a regular basis
- Local doctrine development is prevalent
- Local training centers are developed to institutionalize reforms
- Small, responsive staffs are available to advance new goals and objectives
- Today, the world is facing an information revolution altering how war is conducted. We - as a nation and a military - are struggling to come to terms with war in such an age as leaders clings to old ideas.
- This raises the question: how does one get better at learning?
- One must empower those who are aware of changes in the nature of warfare. This requires a sustained commitment from a hierarchical organization to doctrinal change.
- In any COIN operation, there will only be a small portion of the population (approximately 1 percent) actively supporting the insurgency. Killing them is insufficient: their friends and family will step in. The only way to reduce the proportion to a number that is manageable by law enforcement operations is by draining the swamp. Five tasks – broadly termed information operations - are important here:
- Combat operations
- Training and employing domestic security forces
- Providing essential services
- Fostering good governance
- Economic development takes place
- What do the lessons of organization learning and effective COIN operations indicate about Iraq?
- Bottom-up adaptation occurred
- Providing security became the first and foremost task.
- Tribal accommodation allowed one to obtain intelligence and improve governance.
- Training local forces took the US face off of operations, reduce anti-US sentiment.
- An all professional force permitted innovative junior, mid, and senior-level officers to come to the fore.
- What are the broader lessons of organizational learning vis-à-vis Iraq for the array of tasks central to the COIN fight both tactically and strategically?
- Intelligence Innovation
- Intelligence allows you to better target links in the insurgency.
- To succeed in this task, every soldier must be an intelligence platform
- Developing and protecting local intelligence assets is essential. Unfortunately, using warfighters as police officers is problematic at best.
- A key problem is using 19-year olds in this capacity when they lack college or even high school degrees.
- Providing Security First
- Disorder is the normal state of nature
- The recommended force ratio in COIN operations is 20-25 counterinsurgents for every 1000 people in the population; we only approached 18 per 1000 during the peak of the Surge, suggesting the need for more forces available and/or committed to the fight
- The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian population so that reforms can take hold.
- Tribal Reconciliation
- Insurgencies end through political accommodation. This is a key point: killing everyone simply does not work.
- Focused, dedicated tribal engagement teams were essential in Iraq in shifting the insurgency.
- There is a core group of people who must be killed to allow political change to go forward. However, there are different layers to this onion that can be divided from one another by careful operations.
- Good Governance
- Money needs to be spent to develop links to the population – in Iraq, the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) allowed local commanders in Iraq to aid US-local rapprochement.
- Maintaining the flow of essential services is necessary to prevent popular dissatisfaction with the ruling regime and occupying forces.
- Organizing for an Advisory Role
- This was the initial role of the green berets. Unfortunately, there are not enough green berets to go around, such that they regular Army has taken on the task in Iraq. Creating local forces that do an adequate job takes the burden off of the US Army itself.
- Leadership – both in the US and abroad – is essential.
- The Interagency Fight
- A military solution is insufficient. We need to rebalance national assets to empower USAID/DOS, CIA, and other assets.
- A decisive part of this fight is Strategic Information Operations – shaping foreign perceptions of the United States
In conclusion, the US must transform for the Long War. The Army can be a learning institution, but it requires sustained and conscious efforts.
- The situation on the ground is very different from Iraq: different terrain, people, force ratios, enemy, tribal and ethnic conflicts, etc.
- It is more of a nationalistic, or “classic,” insurgency
- It tends to be Pashtun (the majority group) and Islamist
- Foreign fighters and influence are vastly more important in Afghanistan than in Iraq, since Pakistan is a base of support and supply
- The first step is to obtain a common understanding of the problem within the military and across agencies.
- Unity of command is needed across Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan since the issues are so inter-linked
- The US requires a tribal engagement strategy to reduce local-level support for Al Qaeda and related organizations challenging the US and the Afghan National Government.
- The fight in Afghanistan has also been horribly under-resourced; this cannot hold in terms of force ratios, funding for the Afghan national army, alliance contributions, and so on.
- The US likely needs five times the number of forces there as are currently deployed.
Rapporteur: Josh Shifrinson
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2008